How History, Government, and Social Studies Teachers Can Make the Most of “The Dust Bowl”

How Teachers Can Make the Most of “The Dust Bowl”

The Great Plow Up  |  Okies  |  How Much Government?  |  It Wasn't Just History, It Was Personal  |  Additional Resources on the Website  |  About the Author  |  About the Image

Lessons and Activities

Art Cole house, devastated by Dust Bowl, family wandering out frontThe Dust Bowl presents rich images and thought provoking narrative of America’s transformation from rural to urban, from agricultural to industrial, and from prosperity to poverty. Two major lessons and three Whirlwind Activities explore the impact of history and government. Students will examine the causes and consequences of 19th-century federal farm policies and farming practices and the costs and benefits of these on the people of the Great Plains during the 1920s and 1930s.

New Deal Solutions

In the mid-1930s, the Great Plains was gripped by drought, high winds, and massive dust storms that threatened the health and safety of tens of thousands of people, many of them children. In this lesson, students investigate various solutions to the problems against the backdrop of political ideology. Which solutions would provide the most effective remedy? How do they align with established political philosophies? How could different ideological groups find a common solution? Students work in groups, representing different political and social constituencies, and deliberate on the best policy to address the problems and collaborate on developing viable solutions.

The Great Plow Up

The Dust Bowl was a decade-long catastrophe that swept up 100 million acres of topsoil in more than five states. The causes were lax federal farm policies, a land boom, drought, and a collapsed economy. The result was plummeting wheat prices, farm foreclosures, and displaced populations. This lesson explores the history and economics of the Dust Bowl, examining the various uses of the Great Plains, the impact of mechanized farming, the economic rise and fall of early 20th-century wheat production, and the impact of changes in weather. Students view key video segments describing boom and bust years and graphically track wheat yields and prices from 1910 to 1940 through supply-demand-price charts. Students analyze their charts and match their rise and fall to major historical events. In a culminating activity, students will compile their data into a documentary presentation.


“Okies” was a term for refugees of the Great Depression who traveled from all parts of the country to find better lives in the West. Often depicted as poor dirt farmers, the truth was that over fifty percent of the migrants who traveled to California were from urban areas. Once they arrived, they were often unwanted by the locals and became the targets of prejudice. In this activity, students explore who these people were and what made them similar and different from the people who rejected them. Students write a letter to a local or national magazine from the perspective of different people involved in the great migration—farmers who hire migrant workers, police and border guards, government social worker, labor organizer, unemployed worker, or local business owner—describing the background of the event, their concerns about the migrants, and suggestions for ways the different groups can find common ground.

How Much Government?

The wheat farmers of the 1930s Great Plains faced a “perfect storm.” Overproduction created a glut in the wheat market and priced plunged. Then came the drought and with it dry land and ever-present winds stripping the topsoil and sending it hundreds of miles away. All this amidst the worst economic disaster the country had ever faced. The Roosevelt administration offered relief, reform, and recovery but just as today, there was debate over how much the government should be involved. In this activity, students explore the government’s efforts to mitigate the suffering through the prism of liberal and conservative ideologies, analyzing who benefited and who didn’t, the impact on people’s rights, and the effectiveness of the programs. Students then recommend whether the laws or policies should remain as is, be amended, or be repealed.

It Wasn’t Just History, It Was Personal

The devastation of the Dust Bowl was daunting: millions of tons of topsoil blown away, millions of acres in ruins, towering clouds of dust sweeping over towns and homes, and billions of dollars in damage. But there was also the epic human drama of pain and perseverance: parents who couldn’t provide or protect their children, who endured unimaginable hardship and yet, continued to press on year after year. In this activity, students access the picture library on The Dust Bowl website and other sources. Students will select photographs that they feel characterize the human drama of the Dust Bowl and write diary entries of the daily lives and experiences of people in the photograph.

Additional Resources on the Website

The website for The Dust Bowl contains many features that will enhance viewers experience with the film and students exploration of the lessons. The site will include exerts from the episodes, selections from scripts, archival footage and photographs, music, bibliography, and timelines as well as educational outreach materials and lesson plans. The website will also serve as a base for the overall digital strategy with many interactive tools such as “Share Your Story” and “Send Email Postcards” provide opportunities for people to share their own Dust Bowl stories and experiences and their reactions to The Dust Bowl film.

Selected links from the Website:

About the Author

Greg Timmons, a Social Studies teacher for over 30 years, has also written lessons for the several other series by Ken Burns. He resides in Washington state and Montana.

About the Image

FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Oklahoma, in April 1936. It became one of the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl and one of the most reproduced photos of the twentieth century. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Producer: Florentine Films.